NOT FOR THE WEAK OF HEART
By GUY McCARTHY
It’s not often that Old Priest Grade is closed for a bike race, but it was in August 2019 for the Inaugural Tom Frost Memorial Old Priest Grade Hill Climb. In fact, it was the first time that the notoriously steep Old Priest Grade has been closed for a bicycle event. The Gold Rush- era horse and wagon road is 1.97 miles long with its steepest segments graded 18 percent to 20 percent, according to Duke York, retired deputy director for Tuolumne County roads and engineering. About 130 riders made the climb, including 25 professionallevel cyclists as well as locals from the Motherlode Bicycle Coalition and the Tuolumne County Community Resource Agency, said Craig Flax, producer of a Tom Frost Documentary film that will feature footage from the hill climb event. Frost, of Oakdale, was a key figure in a generation of Yosemite big- wall climbing pioneers in the 1960s. He was a godfather of rock climbing photography, in part because he was one of the few early big wall climbers who carried a camera and film. He died Aug. 24, 2018 at age 82. In his later years, he dreamed of riding up Old Priest Grade but never got the chance. Robert Leibold, a resident of Soulsbyville who’s been organizing bicycle races in California since 1971, said he helped run Old Priest Grade climbs for youth cyclists in the mid- 1990s for three or four years. “We used to have an annual race up that hill,” Leibold said. “It was for juniors only, for riders under age 18. We had kids as young as 12 years old riding that hill. It was one of the climbs on the four- day Gold Nugget Stage Race in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties.” Leibold still runs VeloPromo. com, which puts on 33 bicycle races each year at different locations up and down the Golden State. Mike Phelps, a 76- year- old resident of Angels Camp Yosemite Chamber Magazine who still bike- rides nearly every day, said he used to ride Old Priest Grade in the late 1980s and 1990s. At least a dozen times, he said, probably 1982 was the first time. They were all rides, not races, except for one. “We did one time trial there in the early to mid ‘ 90s,” Phelps said. “That included New Priest and Old Priest and then Marshes Flat Road. Old Priest was the hardest, absolutely. “Those kids could flat get up that mountain in under 20 minutes, some of them,” Phelps said. “Us normal riders would ride it in 20 minutes or more.” Tuolumne County cyclists see the Old Priest Grade Hill Climb event as a unique opportunity for bicyclists and to bring more diverse tourism to Tuolumne County, because there are other steep roads that cyclists can enjoy when traffic is light or non- existent. So how steep is Old Priest Grade? Historians may have the best answers. “Back in wagon days the stages had to stop in Moccasin at the base of the grade and the passengers would have to get out and walk up to Priest Station,” said Florence Jansen, a docent at Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum. “It saved the horses. All the passengers were too much load going up that steep grade.” Frost became famous in 1960s rock climbing circles because he did multi- day first ascents on El Capitan with other pioneering climbers, authors and gear heads like Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt. What set Frost apart is he was one of the few to carry a camera and film, and he understood how to use them, capturing dramatic perspectives no one had seen or photographed before. A few years ago, when Frost was 79 years old, he hired award- winning bicycle builder Rob English in Oregon to create a lightweight road bike to help him climb Old Priest Grade. Frost had shared his desire to ride a bike up Old Priest Grade with the Ankers, the family that has owned the land since the 1800s and run Priest Station at the top of the steep climb. “He called me a few times wanting to do it,” Steve Anker said. “So his dream still lives.” English said Monday by phone that Frost essentially wanted to make his Old Priest Grade frame and bicycle as light as possible, for the least possible resistance going uphill. That made the wheels particularly important, “because the wheels are rotating weight and you have to put that rotating inertia into the bike.” English said he and Frost found some really light carbon fiber wheels from Germany and then some really light tires, not the most durable but very light weight. The final build came in weighing 13.1 pounds, English said.